Researcher’s Corner: Comparing Reference Service in Academic and Public Libraries

What do employers really want?  A lot of this blog deals with the translation between job ad speak and the real needs and wants of hiring managers.  I’m pleased to share the following post with you, because it represents another way of looking at the skills and competencies candidates might wish to cultivate, specifically – What skills do you need to be a good reference librarian?  I also find it pretty fascinating that there are so many similarities between what public and academic libraries want…

(This is a recap of our article “Significantly Different? Reference Services Competencies in Public and Academic Libraries” published in Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 216–23, which won the 2014 Reference Service Press Award, which honors the most outstanding article published in RUSQ. )

Reference is reference – or is it?

It’s a commonly held belief that reference skills needed to be effective are necessarily different in public and academic libraries. However, there has been no research to either confirm or deny that idea. In 2011, we carried out a nationwide study looking at reference library work in academic (Saunders) and public (Jordan) libraries, and compared them for similarities and differences. These data will be of interest to professional librarians who are considering a change in setting and to hiring managers interviewing such candidates, as well as to library students who are in the process of planning their program and choosing a career path. The ideas shared here could also inform revisions or changes to reference courses and related areas of the library science curriculum and as such should be of interest to library science faculty.

We sent out surveys to a randomly selected sampling of 10 academic and 20 public libraries from each state. Every effort was made to identify the reference librarian or reference department manager at each library, but in some cases the invitation was sent to the library director, assistant director, or a public services librarian, asking them to forward it to the appropriate person. This is always surprisingly difficult in public libraries; too many websites have no contact information – leading Professor Jordan to wonder, in every study she does, how their patrons are contacting them. The surveys were essentially identical between the academic and public libraries, with different demographic questions. In addition to basic demographic information, librarians were asked to review a list of thirty-seven competencies in three categories and choose those they consider important. There were three categories of competencies: General, Technology, and Personal. They were then asked to list the three competencies in each list that they believe to be the most important. The list of competencies for the survey was drawn largely from the professional competencies and behavioral guidelines provided by RUSA, and was supplemented by competencies identified in the literature.

The General library skills, those skills traditionally associated with reference work, most frequently selected as important by our respondents were:

Academic Library

  • Search skills (95.6%)
  • Customer service (94.0%)
  • Familiarity with online reference sources (93.4%)
  • Traditional reference interview (75.5%)
  • Familiarity with paper reference sources (67.1%)

Public Library

• Customer service (97.1%)
• Search skills (95.6%)
• Familiarity with online reference sources (92.7%)
• Traditional reference interview (77.8%)
• Familiarity with paper reference sources (70.3%)

There was complete overlap here between the two types of libraries, with only a slight reshuffling of order of importance. These results suggest that the two types of libraries value the same skills, although they might prioritize them differently, and contributes to the finding that librarians who have worked in one type of reference situation should be able to transfer their reference skills to other venues.

We next asked the participants to identify the most important Technology skills from the provided list.

Academic Library

• Online searching (98.4%)
• Software troubleshooting (71.2%)
• Chat/IM (65.8%)
• Social media (65.5%)
• Web design (53.0%)

Public Library

• Online searching (98.2%)
• Software troubleshooting (77.8%)
• Hardware troubleshooting (64.4%)
• Social media (64.1%)
• Chat/IM (38.8%)

The two lists were similar, but somewhat more varied for technology skills. While online searching is equally important to both types of librarians, the numbers of respondents identifying each of the other competencies as important varied more widely: 65.8% of academic librarians identified chat/IM as important, while only 38.8% of public librarians did. Academic librarians selected web design as an important skills, but not public librarians; they selected hardware troubleshooting as important while academic librarians did not. These differences might reflect the difference in services and staffing in the different types of libraries. For instance, academic libraries might be more likely to have dedicated technology staff on campus who can assist with hardware and software troubleshooting, while public librarians might have less on-site tech support. Whatever the reason, the two types of libraries do seem to emphasize some different technology skills.

The third grouping of competencies was the Personal list, the soft skills reference librarians need to function effectively.

Academic Library

• Verbal communication (97.8%)
• Listening (96.6%)
• Approachability (95.3%)
• Comfort with instruction/teaching (92.5%)
• Adaptability/flexibility (91.8%)

Public Library

• Verbal communication (97.8%)
• Listening (97.1%)
• Approachability (94.8%)
• Adaptability/flexibility (88.9%)
• Sense of humor (87.2%)

As with general skills, there was a lot of similarity between the two lists. Regardless of type of library setting, verbal communication, listening, and approachability are crucial for all reference librarians as they will spend much of their day interacting with the public. It is reasonable that academic librarians identified instructional comfort as important so frequently, as it is such a significant part of many academic library jobs. In some academic libraries, reference librarians will spend equal amounts of time providing instruction and staffing more traditional reference service points. Public librarians commented the need for a sense of humor to effectively deal with the fast pace of work on the reference desk, and also to avoid being overwhelmed by the huge diversity of patrons who come into the library for help. Both instruction and sense of humor are important in both types of libraries, but as with certain technology skills, each setting seems to emphasize or prioritize one over the other somewhat.

There was a lot of similarity between academic and public libraries on the competencies they felt were most important for success at the reference desk, so were the least selected competences also comparable?

Academic Public

• Programming 8.5% (Technology)
• Foreign Language 11.9% (General)
• Budgeting 24.8% (General)
• Second Master’s degree 28.2% (General)
• Research/publishing 33.5% (General)

Public Library

• Second Master’s degree 5% (General)
• Research/publishing 12.5% (General)
• Programming 13.1% (Technology)
• Web design 22.4% (Technology)
• Foreign Language 28.3% (General)

It is often taken on faith that academic librarians will need a second Master’s degree to be employed; but this survey suggests that a second Master’s is not considered essential by most academic librarians. The data did suggest, however, that reference librarians in research universities were more likely to consider a second Master’s degree important than those in other types of academic libraries. Another Master’s degree was almost universally viewed as unimportant in public library reference work, as was research and publishing. Interestingly, only a third of academic librarians identified this as important; we did not ask whether respondents were required to publish to obtain tenure in their libraries, but presumably libraries with these requirements would be more likely to value it than libraries where it is optional. The lack of importance given to a foreign language might be surprising.Public librarians are required to deal with the entire spectrum of a community, including those with weak or non-existent English skills, and many academic institutions are seeing increasing numbers of international students whose English language skills can vary widely. This is an interesting area for potential follow-up study.

After looking at all these data, the main conclusion is that the differences between academic and public libraries are not as pronounced as people may have previously thought. The heart of library work is always going to be customer service, and that is emphasized in these soft skills such as communication, listening, and flexibility identified by librarians in both academic and public libraries. Librarians, and library students, hoping to be successful at reference work will do well to focus time and attention specifically on developing these skills to make themselves valuable regardless of the institution. The biggest differences seem to be in the areas of the harder skills, such as research and publication, certain technology skills, and assessment and evaluation. Librarians who aspire to move between academic and public reference desks would benefit from restructuring their resumes and the answers they use in the interview process to emphasize the skills of interest to the hiring libraries.

We thought this was a very interesting study, and hope it put to rest some of the misconceptions about reference work as well as helping to guide some training for good reference work. If your library would like us to come talk to you about this or other studies we have done; or if you would like us to do some other training for you, do not hesitate to contact us!

Laura SaundersLaura Saunders Laura Saunders received her PhD from Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in May 2010.  She holds an M.S.L.I.S from Simmons as well as a B. A. from Boston University in English Literature and Italian.  She worked as a reference librarian and branch manager of the Career Resource Library for Simmons College from 1999 to 2003, where she provided reference and instruction services, as well as participated in collection development, Web page maintenance, and marketing of library services.  While completing her PhD, she worked as an adjunct faculty member.  Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College, teaching in the areas of reference, evaluation of information services, information literacy, and academic libraries. Her first book, Information Literacy as a Student Learning Outcome: The Perspective of Institutional Accreditation was published in June 2011. Her research interests include information literacy, assessment, accreditation, reference services, and the place of libraries in higher education.  She has had articles published in The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Library & Information Science Research, College & Research Libraries, and portal: Libraries and the Academy.  You may also recognize her from the Hiring Librarians post: Researcher’s Corner: Reference Competencies from the Academic Employers’ Perspective.

Mary Wilkins Jordan (425x640)Mary Wilkins Jordan came to Simmons College GSLIS from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she earned a PhD.

Prior to entering academia, Jordan worked in public libraries as a Director and administrator.

Her research and consulting work now focuses on ways to help libraries to function better and to serve their communities more effectively. She teaches Management and also Evaluation classes, as well as Public Libraries, Reference, and the Internship class, all with a focus on helping students acquire the skills they need to be successful in their professional careers.

Jordan also has a J.D. from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and worked as an attorney before entering the library field.


Filed under Academic, Public, Researcher's Corner

2 responses to “Researcher’s Corner: Comparing Reference Service in Academic and Public Libraries

  1. Pingback: Library Links: Comparing libraries | Beta Librarian

  2. Pingback: Researchers’ Corners: A Guide for the Evidence-Based Job Hunter | Hiring Librarians

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